OC WISE Chairman Dr. Allan Bernstein addresses the importance of local reliability and water independence for Orange County when it comes to our water supply infrastructure.
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The visual of water pouring down the Oroville Dam’s broken spillway could not be a better metaphor for California’s crumbling infrastructure. Orange County learned decades ago that if we wait for Sacramento to act, our infrastructure would be in just as much jeopardy as it is elsewhere in the state.
Consider that for every dollar in state taxes O.C. sends to Sacramento, we receive just six cents back in state services. That’s clearly not fair and while we could curse the darkness, instead we decided to light some candles.
In the late 1980s, when the state refused to provide the money necessary to build the planned state highway system for South O.C., we asked the state to allow us to independently bond for the construction of the roadways and pay those bonds back through tolls. A decade later, the 241, 261, 133 and 73 Toll Roads have been built and are critical to regional traffic relief.
In 1990, O.C. residents voted a half-cent county sales tax dedicated to traffic relief through Measure M. That has provided freeway widenings, Metrolink service to O.C., city street improvements and grade separations exclusively in O.C. That’s been $4 billion dedicated to local transportation improvements over the past quarter-century that most O.C. residents acknowledge has made their quality of life better.
When it comes to water projects, many of our elected water district directors have indicated that while they support the California Water Fix, which would protect the future viability of the California Aqueduct and our Northern California water supply, we are no more than cautiously optimistic that the leadership in Sacramento will actually find the political will to invest in our water infrastructure.
Therefore, O.C. will do what it always does — find local solutions. We built the Groundwater Replenishment System, the world’s most technologically advanced state of the art wastewater purification and recycling system. And now we are exploring a public-private partnership with Poseidon Water in an effort to build a seawater desalination plant with private dollars at no risk to the taxpayers in order to turn ocean water into drinking water. Poseidon has already built a desalination plant in Carlsbad that provides a new high-quality water supply for San Diego County and O.C. deserves the same drought-proof water independence.
Through water conservation, water recycling and seawater desalination, O.C. can reduce its dependence on imported water supply sources and put us closer toward infrastructure independence. This independence not only protects us from the politics in Sacramento, but it also protects us when Mother Nature strikes. The failure of the Lake Oroville spillway is child’s play compared to a significant earthquake that could potentially cut us off from our imported water supply for many months. When the State Water Project was built in 1961 under Gov. Pat Brown, it was designed to serve 18 million people. California now has more than double that population. Today, Pat Brown’s son, Jerry Brown is governor (again), but we’re still relying on his father’s 56-year-old infrastructure to provide us the water we need in Southern California. Local projects like the Groundwater Replenishment System and the Huntington Beach Seawater Desalination project provide O.C. the insurance
and protection we need if and when a natural disaster strikes.
We all remain hopeful that our elected leaders in Sacramento will learn from the Lake Oroville catastrophe and re-assign our tax dollars toward our state’s dire infrastructure needs. But if past is prologue, O.C. leaders should not hesitate in their efforts to continue county investments in infrastructure independence.
Dr. Allan Bernstein is the mayor of Tustin, the chairman of the Association of Cities-Orange County Water Committee and the chairman of Orange County Water Independence, Sustainability and Efficiency.